Demolition String Band: Brilliant Country and Bluegrass

Demolition String Band’s new album Gracious Days is a kind of record that doesn’t get made very often anymore. It answers the question of what would happen if two of the most esteemed players on the New York country scene were turned loose in the studio with unlimited instruments and unlimited time, something Varese Vintage apparently decided to do, with delicious results. The production is absolutely gorgeous, many of the songs starting out totally acoustic before the electric instruments come in on a second verse or chorus: it’s a fully realized blend of the band’s electrifying live show along with their passion for old Appalachian songs. The band’s 2002 album Pulling Up Atlantis may represent an iconic moment in underground Americana, but musically speaking, this is the best thing they’ve ever done. The core band members, guitarist/banjoist Boo Reiners and mandolinist/guitarist Elena Skye have never sounded more inspired: Reiners’ effortless flatpicking, soulfully resonant dobro and fiery electric guitar create the album’s obvious highlights, Skye’s mandolin as edgy and contemporary as it is rustic. She’s also taken her vocals to the next level, whether soft and pillowy on the quieter songs, or evoking a raw, emotionally charged intensity on the more oldtimey numbers, her harmonies with Reiners as soulful as ever. This version of the band includes David Mansfield on steel, Mike Santoro on acoustic and electric bass guitar, Catherine Popper on upright and electric bass, Jimi Zhivago on keys, Kenny Soule on drums and Lisa Gutkin on fiddle: the arrangements are devised so that pretty much the whole band gets a chance to contribute to every track.

The album is bookended by a swaying countrypolitan theme by Skye disguised as an oldtimey string band tune. Misfortune, the most antique-sounding of all the tracks here is actually a Skye original, moving stoically from Carter Family plaintiveness to more lush textures with fiddle and a web of electric guitars. Reiners’ Under the Weather is a swaying, Creedence-flavored swamp rock tune and a launching pad for what seems dozens of smartly chosen guitar licks played on dobro and electric.

In the past, this band has covered Madonna: this time around, they tackle the Ramones’ Questioningly, turning it into rueful Social Distortion-esque Americana rock, lit up by a lithe, serpentine Reiners electric guitar solo. Mickey Newbury’s Why You Been Gone So Long gives the band a chance to show off their Bakersfield honkytonk side, with some clever effects on the vocals. Has anyone ever killed a fifth of Thunderbird, as the guy in this song does, and lived to tell the tale?

Dress of Roses, a longtime concert favorite for this band, gets reinvented with an even slower groove than usual, with some wickedly spiky banjo/mandolin interplay followed by a gorgeous Mansfield solo. Reiners gets to show off his wry banjo virtuosity on the lickety-split Boojo Breakdown, while Skye takes a turn of her own on the slower, more romantic Williamsville Ramble: these folks have their country dance tunes down cold.

Their swinging fiddle-and-mandolin version of Hard Ain’t It Hard is a showcase for Skye at her most vivid, while Blaze Foley’s sadly swaying you-done-me-wrong song Alibis is awash in cool guitar licks and an understatedly biting chordal acoustic solo. The band also takes a brisk run through Ola Belle Reed’s Where the Wild Wild Flowers Grow (the centerpiece of the band’s brilliant Reed cover album by the same title, from 2006) and takes a stab at the traditional number Old Blue, which they rescue from cheesiness with a joyous acoustic-electric arrangement. If country music is your thing, this is for you. Demolition String Band play the album release show at around 10 PM on March 30 at Rodeo Bar.